A Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine is basically a big magnet that uses radio waves to make images of organs, tissues, or bones in our bodies. It helps doctors diagnose problems they can't find any other way. The cost varies depending on what part of the body is being scanned, in what state the patient is getting it scanned, whether it is done in a hospital or by a private firm, and so on. When researching the costs of a lower back spinal scan, which is what I needed done, the variation in costs ranged from $1000 to over $5000. I could find no consistency to the pricing. This made me a bit more sympathetic to the insurance company and the long wait I had to endure before they approved the procedure. (No doubt that small amount of sympathy will vanish when I get the bill for my co-pay.)
My MRI was done by a private company. I was just on time for my appointment, and the last one of the day. As soon as I walked in, I was brought into the small administrative office where the woman who does all the administrative duties took my insurance card and driver's license. She recorded the info from them onto some form on her computer and photocopied them. I had to answer a number of questions designed to discover if I have any metal in me or on me, and then signed some papers in several places. The technician came in and escorted me through a door to a maze of rooms in the back. He showed me to a changing room where I had to change into a hospital gown and pants; I was told to lock up my possessions in a small locker and wear the key on a plastic arm ring, like a bracelet. He took that from me when we went into the room with the MRI machine.
The machine looks like a large tube with a concave, body size slab sticking out from the front of it. There was a pillow on one end, and it was all covered with a sheet. I lay on the slab. He put a pillow under my knees to make it more comfortable. We were taking images of my lower back because of the pain, and I was going to be lying there for almost half an hour. The pillow helped. He asked me what kind of music I wanted to listen to, then covered me with a sheet, and put headphones over my ears. He gave me a small round button to hold onto; if I needed to talk to him, I was to push the button. I thought of it as the panic button.
Then the slab began moving me backward, headfirst into the tube. The tube was open on both ends, but my head stayed inside, so I felt like I was completely encased in this plastic tunnel. It was only slightly wider than the width of my body. The top was barely an inch from my face. In the few moments before I closed my eyes, I could feel the beginning vestiges of panic forming. It was like staring at the closed lid of a coffin, except, of course, it was well lit. I consoled myself with the thought that someone buried alive would be in complete darkness. This may sound like a crazy thought, but in those circumstances, when your entire body is encased by a thick, plastic and metal tube you can't escape from, it's really not that crazy. I closed my eyes and kept them closed the entire time.
Streams of air blew past my cheeks and chin. That was a small comfort. The technician spoke to me through the earphones, reminding me not to move. I lay with my arms along the sides of my body, between the walls and my sides. Then the noises started. The machine is loud. It makes knocking, banging, clicking and beeping noises. The earphones are protection from the noise as much as a vehicle for the music being piped in. I could barely hear the music. I had asked for classical; I got canned, big orchestra symphonies.
With my eyes closed, I practiced zen meditation. I drew a deep breath, counted to five, and then exhaled, counting to five. I thought: breathe in, two, three, four, five. Breathe out, two, three, four, five. I repeated this over and over, visualizing the tension in my body floating away like balloons. For the first five minutes it felt difficult to breathe. Slowly, though, I began to relax. Then I was able to picture places I love, like the beach on the island where I grew up. I pictured the stretch of beach from our block down to the fishing pier, the waves gently washing up on the sand, the breeze rippling across the surface of the ocean, spraying spindrift into the air, the sounds of the waves and gulls, a blue sky over it all. Then it was over. The clanking and knocking stopped, the technician assured me that I did great, and slowly the slab moved out of the tube, and I was free, looking up at an enormous photo across the ceiling of a cherry tree in full blossom.
The technician helped me sit up, gave me the key to the locker in the changing room, and showed me back to that room. I dressed, and left, actually feeling calmer and more relaxed than I had all day until I started to worry about what the MRI would reveal. What if there was something seriously wrong with my back? A few days later the doctor called to tell me I have a bulging disc and would need surgery, but that's a topic for another day.